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Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Reclaiming Some of Our Wastewater to Use in the Garden

If you've never spent a lot of time in the Seattle area, you may think that it rains here all of the time. Seattle is a rather rainy place. But we do get our share of dry spells, particularly in summer. From around the middle of June through mid-September, most years find us high and dry for weeks on end. In fact, some towns in my area suggest that folks plant drought resistant landscapes, here, where it rains and rains and rains.

We do our part and avoid watering the lawns in summer. We also keep a large swath of our property in woods. If a plant or tree can't take a dry summer, it just doesn't make it in the woods. But our gardens and orchards do need constant watering in summer.

I begin each summer with two full rain barrels, with a combined capacity of 110 gallons. These rain barrels catch the spring rain from our roof during storms. They are full and overflowing when I am beginning to set plants out into my garden each year. Most years, we get enough refill rain to keep those barrels topped off until about the 3rd week of June. At that point, what I have in the barrels is about all I'll have for the rest of summer. Any summer rainfall we get seems to get sucked up by the bone dry cedar shingles, with only a small trickle left to run off and into the gutters before dripping into the barrels.

Knowing that this rain water is limited for our active growing season, I water very judiciously. Even so, by early July, my rain barrels are about empty. For the hottest months of the year, I have to rely on municipal water to keep my gardens growing.

You would think living in a place with a reputation for lots of rainfall that we'd have low water bills. I wish that were so. It's not only the water and delivery that accounts for our high water bills. The bulk of the cost, I believe, is for the wastewater treatment for all of that water that goes down the drains, which is calculated for each household based on the amount of water used. So, I try super hard in summer to use as little extra water outdoors as possible.

This year, as I was using up the rain barrel water, I began thinking that we should save the "cleaner" used kitchen water and pour it into the emptying rain barrel. In years past, I've set the watering can on the deck just outside the kitchen door. It was a bit of a hassle pouring the used water into the small opening of the watering can, leaving a lot on the deck floor and having a limited capacity (2.5 gallon can) to hold water for the next watering. It was once in spring that I began thinking how nice it would be to have a spare rain barrel that I could put on the deck next to the kitchen, so I could pour the used kitchen water directly into that nearby rain barrel and save it until needed. Rain barrels are pricey, however. Then I thought, what if I had a larger container for collecting used water on the deck, then transferred that water into the rain barrel a few gallons at a time. I remembered the stack of 5-gallon buckets in the garage and grabbed one and put it on the deck just outside the kitchen door. I also pulled a plastic dishpan out of the pantry and placed it in the kitchen sink. We now rinse (whether that be hands, vegetables, or pots/pans) over this plastic tub and transfer that saved water to the 5-gallon bucket as it fills. Then once the 5-gallon bucket is about 3/4 full, I take that down the steps to the rain barrel next to the garden. The rain barrel has a screen on top, filtering out any vegetable debris that remains in the rinse water. I find I'm emptying the 5-gallon bucket into the rain barrel 2 to 4 times per day.

Anyway, my post today is about more than just saving water. It's about what I find I need to do to make new habits stick. I was thinking about making new habits and why we sometimes can't keep them. Every summer I've tried to save some of the used kitchen water for watering our vegetables. One or more of the steps in making a new habit are sometimes inconvenient or difficult to perform. I mentioned some of the problems I had with saving water in a watering can on the deck. It had a small opening on the top, meaning I spilled a lot of the water I was trying to save. The watering can didn't hold enough water to make much of a dent in our water usage, just a mere 2.5 gallons. If I had the time to drop everything and go water a portion of the garden with the watering can every time it filled up, perhaps capacity wouldn't have been such an obstacle. But for me, it really was. I wanted to have larger amounts of water on hand for my daily watering chore. The 5-gallon bucket on the deck was just the thing I needed to make saving the water both more convenient and help me better achieve my water-saving goals. 

I've been amazed by how much rinse water we actually save each day. We are reclaiming between 10 and 15 gallons of mostly clean water each day. (I rinse my hands a lot when cooking and baking. In addition, garden produce is much dirtier than purchased produce.) We're careful to only pour mostly clean water into the barrel, as we don't want bad odors or bacteria to develop. Some of the water that is not saved and stored in the rain barrels is still clean enough to dump on shrubs and trees by carrying the washpan directly out to a tree. So in fact, we're saving more than 10 gallons of water per day.

So far this seems to be working for me. I eliminated some of the aspects that put me off from sticking with this new habit. Such a little change -- using one of our larger buckets to collect the water before dumping into the emptying rain barrel. Time will tell if I stick with this water saving this year.

Have you encountered challenges when forming new habits? How did you overcome those challenges? What ways did you need to rethink your new process?


  1. I definitely have problems forming new habits if there is any kind of obstacle involved--especially when I'm tired. I do as you do and try to think of ways to make them easier and often set a specific time to do something even if the task is not time sensitive. I like order and routines and that helps.

    We have one rain barrel and it provides enough water for our needs. I use some waste water usually for flowers close to the house. A five gallon bucket full of water is pretty heavy. Do you find it awkward to carry and dump?

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      That's a great tip -- to set a time to do something, even if it doesn't have a time specific nature to it.

      You're right. A 5-gallon bucket of water is very heavy. I can move it and lift it to pour at 3/4 full. I prefer to transfer the water at 2/3 full. I'm moving the water at about 25 to 30 lbs, which I can manage with a lot of effort. I was thinking yesterday how nice it would be to rig a contraption like a rain gutter mounted to the side of the house that would dump right into the rain barrel (which is down a half-flight of stairs from the deck). I could empty the dishpan into that gutter. Just dreaming. In the ideal world, I'd have a system that carried the waste water to an outdoor, elevated reservoir directly from the kitchen.

      Have a great day, Live and Learn!

  2. Yes, building new habits can be a challenge! One I struggled with for years, was being consistent with exercise. One issue that I identified was the fact that my schedule isn't the same every day or week. My personality is such that I liked the idea of doing something, walking for example, on M-W-F, and weight lifting on T-H. But life isn't always that smooth. I've adapted and made exercise a habit by looking at the upcoming week (or two), and planning accordingly. A current example is that I'm coming back from a hip injury for which I was grounded to only flat walking the past few months. July 3rd was the first day I could add climbs. I have a deadline to be ready to backpack in Colorado at the end of July. So, this week, I've planned longer hikes with uphills for Tuesday/Friday, when I have more time in my schedule. Today, Wednesday, was 3 hours of kayaking (fun but also an upper body workout) as my schedule was also more relaxed. Tomorrow, I have appointments and less time to work with, so will do a shorter walk at a local park. The other adaptation I've had to make is to get up an hour earlier (4:30 am) to have the time in my schedule AND to be outside when it's reasonably cool, as we've been in the 100's for 12 days straight and there is only more of the same in the 10 day forecast.

    As for the watering situation, good for you on making what you DO have work for you! When in severe drought a few years back, I used dish pans and emptied them on flower beds afterwards. We caught water in totes and buckets as it ran off the roof, dipped in buckets, and used those to water the garden. We live in a hot dry climate so it didn't go far, but was at least something. Several years ago, we added two of the 55 gallon rain barrels, and my husband put a corrugated plastic roof on the chicken coop with a gutter draining it into those barrels. Last year, we put gutters on one side of our house, and added a 300+ gallon IBC tank (purchased at our city's annual sale of them--they are what water treatment chemicals come in). This has been wonderful! This year, he went back for a second one and connected them. Still won't be nearly enough water for our garden overall, but I'm thrilled to have the non-treated water especially for young starts and seedlings.

    1. Sorry, this is Cat. Having trouble signing in today, then forgot to put my name above.

    2. Hi Cat,
      I guessed it was you from your comment about backpacking.
      Exercise is a hard one for me, too, mostly because my work-related physical activity varies so much from one day to the next. I'm more consistent with exercise in my non-gardening months, as I know I have the time and energy to get consistent exercise in.
      I'm sorry to hear about your hip injury. But glad you're getting closer to normal again for yourself. Good luck finishing your trying for your upcoming trip!

  3. We have been conserving water too since we are asked by our City to reduce use by at least 10% . For now the order is voluntary, but given our extreme drought conditions for over a year, and tge ongoing Navy fuel contamination threat that keeps evolving for the worse, I wouldn't be surprised if there are soon penalty fees for excessive use. Like you said, this is about learning new habits. For awhile, I've been extremely careful about wasting water. I find a determined mindset helps me stay on track. Also writing down my thoughts in a journal so I can remind myself what I was thinking and where I left off. There are so many ways to use less water. Some are tacky and uncouth. I'm surprised when I look back that I had completely forgotten ideas that I know would have been lost if I didn't stop to note it. Same goes for every habit I want to change. I keep separate notes on every subject I want to learn and may want to change. Finding the reasons or tips on how to change and reflecting on the consequences if I don't change helps me a lot. I've found the perfect medium to do this, junk journals, where I can clip and paste articles as well as write. I always think when I leave this place my kids will finally see how crazy and geeky their mother was.

    1. That was me. I can't navigate the mouse well on my tablet, so I just sent without saying bye. Lili, I hope you are being kind to yourself as you are to everyone here and in your daily life. We need to know we are enough just being who we are. Not easy to do. Sometimes our goals are difficult. Enjoying the process is the happiness., not just reaching our goals.

      Have a nice day,

    2. Hi Laura,
      I'm two for two -- I guessed this was you before reading your second comment. Your mention of journaling (esp junk journaling) gave you away.

      Your tip to write down thoughts is such a great one for me. It's so frustrating to be thinking about doing something, then have that thought leave my mind completely and need to retrace my steps to remember.

      Doesn't it seem crazy at times, that you're on an island surrounded by a vast ocean, and still there isn't enough water? I'm sure engineers are working on desalinization techniques that are more affordable for communities. Southern California is dealing with the same thing. One county recently proposed a desalinization plant, but it was turned down by the advisory board/commissioners. If you drive around the different communities in So Cal, you can instantly tell the more upscale ones from the impoverished ones by the state of their front lawn alone. The wealthier neighborhoods water their lawns and flower beds like they're irrigating a food source, while the poorer neighborhoods have bleak front yards. I think Arizona does a better job with dealing with lack of rainfall in their yards. My stepmom's neighborhood homes all have rocks and succulents for front yard landscaping. No attempt to grow grass at all.

      I hope that it doesn't get to fines for water usage in your area and that adequate rainfall returns.

    3. Yes it's crazy that we're surrounded by water and have watershortages. My husband also wondered about desalination,why our City hasn't done it yet. To address our shortfall they recently announced plans to drill new wells which will take a few years.

      I hope I didn't mispeak. I always have to remind myself that I don't have to do more or be better. Even if I don't reach my goals (improved diet, savings, art skills) which I am obsessed about, the main thing is to enjoy everyday and enjoy what I'm doing. That said, I still value progress, so its a battle. I think we're ingrained to value progress too much. If I don't use everyday to get ahead, I worry that I may fall behind. That fear is what keeps me trapped.


    4. Hi Laura,
      I understand how you feel. I think it's good to want to make best use of every day. But I also think we need a break from trying so hard constantly. I work at just being in the moment to enjoy each day.
      Thanks for your thoughts.


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